It was with a sense of relief that we left Iran; perhaps it was the feeling of being overwhelmed by a huge city struggling to cope with the myriad problems of a massive population, chronic shortages, endlessly convoluted traffic and crumbling pavements and buildings . Or maybe it was the continual worry about whether we had calculated our finances sufficiently to last the trip, and being stranded. Whatever the case, as the lights of Tehran diminished into the darkness, two weary travellers quickly fell asleep in the comfort of Turkish Airlines flight 899, bound for Istanbul.
We both awoke to the plane slowing for descent and were kept in suspense by thick rain clouds until the very last minute, when we burst through the clouds to see the city and coastline revealed below us. Passport control was quick and within 15 minutes, we were cashed up and on the shuttle bus into the city.
Green, green and more green! How wonderful and relaxing to the eye to once again see lawns and trees, even though they were interspersed with snow drifts and drizzling rain. The freeway system was well maintained, the traffic followed road rules, we were once again in the west; well, almost. It took about twenty minutes before we crossed the Bosphorus and were deposited on the European side of the city near Taksim square.
As we collected our luggage we were immediately set upon by taxi drivers hassling us for a lift and finally climbed into one, even though it appeared our accommodation was only one kilometre away. We were staying in Beyoglu, an old part of the city, which is quite hilly and the convoluted streets and alleys quickly confused us. The taxi driver navigated the way easily though and deposited us within fifty metres of our apartment. Unfortunately, not before bamboozling Ian, with some slick sleight of hand, out of the bulk of his lira!
Feeling righteously aggrieved, we racked on the door of the apartment until a man emerged from a door a couple of houses away and motioned for us to wait, whilst he went to a building a few houses in the opposite direction and aroused an African woman. She let us in and after a phone call, was able to offer us an apartment on the fourth floor, as the occupants of our intended flat had not yet vacated. We accepted and the fellow kindly carried our luggage up for us.
Cath immediately set to making us a home, organising all our stuff, while Ian dithered, no surprise really! After that we wandered out in search of groceries, it had been a while since we felt as though we had a home and it was really nice to do some 'normal' things. What a delight to find an open air market around the first corner and plenty of little grocery stores including a bottle shop. Unfortunately due to our cash shortage, about which Ian was still chafing, we had to go into a Carrefours store. It was great to be provisioned though and we headed back to the apartment with great anticipation. Cath was going to cook a meal and we had two bottles of wine.....Turkish wine, well it wasn't quite Grange but it was wine and at that point anything would do.
Our first morning in our Istanbul home was spent doing what we do at home, reading the news; local and international, multiple cups of tea and coffee, breakfast cooked and general laziness but it also included planning our day in a new exotic city. Does it get more exotic than the ancient Constantinople?
A cold and wet mid morning, truthfully closer to lunchtime, saw us off to Taksim Square, familiar as a scene of revolutions and protests but also thankfully the location of banks and metro stations. Down the funicular we went to get the tram to Sultanhamet to see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. We were a little confused about stations and were trying to get off a bit early when the locals spotted us and intervened. With little to no English a lovely elderly couple stopped us and then explained where to get off, don't mention the taxi drivers! We were happily standing in the rain mouths open at both the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque when a young man decided to test his English on us, next minute we were in his uncle's carpet shop, across the road from the family hotel. Two hours later, 2 cups of beautifully flavoured tea, a coffee, baklava and a damn good conversation, running from religion to tour sites of the world, we were trying to find a reason NOT to buy a beautiful Kazak carpet. No carpet was purchased, no thanks to Cath, who actually loathes carpet but fell in love with this one. Perhaps it was the baklava!
Off to the blue mosque, again there are few words to describe the beauty and intricacy of the decoration. We were able to visit this mosque together and to observe the faithful at prayer, from a distance. It felt very welcoming, much like entering the great cathedrals of the world, Notre Dame the closest we could find to compare. Ian had a moment of connection with a very exotic instrument, commenting to Cath that he had spent some time wondering at how they were creating the weird droning sound. It wasn't until they turned it off and on again, that he realised it was a vacuum cleaner. House husband skills remain in question!!!! Obviously we had to leave at this point for Cath to stop giggling.
Hagia Sophia was unfortunately closed on Mondays, so instead we wandered off to Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans. As we wandered the kitchens and grounds, reading about the history of the place, we were amazed and appalled at the opulence of their lifestyles. Nevertheless, they had created some wonderful rooms and buildings. The view from the battlements across the Bosphorus and Golden Horn was, of course, magnificent.
As dark closes in quite rapidly at this time of the year we headed home for a rest and to decide what the evening may hold. Beyoglu has many bars, cafes and restaurants so some research was required to decide on how to approach the evening. Feeling obliged to visit our local, we popped into the bottle shop at the end of the street for supplies and headed home for a couple of quiet ones and some research into nightly activities.
On the taxi ride to our accomodation the day before, Cath had spotted an Irish pub and as we were both a bit keen for a beer we headed off to find it. It was all a little bit too easy and along the way the smell of kebab cooking everywhere got our mouths watering. A couple of plates of chicken kebab, rice and salad later, we were beer ready, however we got a bit distracted by the very bright lights, music and multiple bars just up the street from the James Joyce Irish Pub. It turns out the streets leading up the hill in Beyoglu are full of bars and restaurants all leading up to Istikal Caddesi, a very famous Istanbul shopping and night spot, with a lovely red vintage tram running down the middle. Street performers, art, markets and beautiful old buildings, all lit up with a kaleidoscope of lights, kept us wandering for an hour or so, but finally it was time to choose a bar and hear some local music. We visited a few of the establishments, heard some good and not so good music, had a few Belgian beers and marvelled at the way the young and hip, muslim and we assume non muslim, were happily partying away Monday night. It was lovely to see a couple of young muslim girls with their head scarves, included in the clearly student lifestyle in the bars, dancing and partying away; such a contrast with the female oppression in Iran.
Not yet ready to head home we decided it was time for a Guinness and were off to the James Joyce. We had a very nice time chatting to an English guy, his Turkish girlfriend and the bar staff whilst sipping Reki, a Turkish spirit much like Ouzo or Pastis, Guinness for Cath and Whisky for Ian. Before we knew it, it was last drinks, 2am. Time for bed, or so we thought. As we arrived home the young guy who worked in the apartment's cafe and reception was keen for a chat and with Reki loosened tongues so were we. It turned out Mohammed was a Syrian refuge and after a good chat about Syria and world events he invited us to meet his friends whom he shares accomodation with, just around the corner. He was as surprised as us to find them with a couple of German girls dancing in the street and ready to head out to a bar, seemed like we were going out again! A short stroll to a small bar a few stories up in an old building and it was beer all round, except for Mohammed who didn't drink alcohol. Admittedly it was a little surprising to be sitting in a bar with half a dozen muslim guys drinking beer, but when in Istanbul..... The hours flew by, and before we knew it the owner of the bar was quite rightly wanting to go home, it was 4:45am! It had been a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss life, politics, religion, hopes and dreams with these young people and yet distressing too; so full of life and yet homeless, although thankfully, not hopeless. For those of you who may be interested and in Melbourne, one of these guys is a film maker and has a film premiering at the Melbourne Film Festival this year.
What a night! We are both very certain that we would not have taken an opportunity like this at home, in fact we would probably have been so worried about what might happen to us that we would never have even considered it. Travelling is changing us, we are more open to taking opportunities, getting out of our comfort zones, relishing the contact with new friends not viewing them as strangers.
Tuesday promised to be a very slow day, given that we were only just in bed when the sun got up. A long sleep, some foraging for food, the best $0.50 AUD chicken kebab sandwich ever and planning our next adventure were all we could manage. Back to seeing Istanbul in the day time on Wednesday....
Headed in the direction of Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar we thought a coffee and baklava would be the best way to start the day. We were once again delayed by local guys wanting to sell us carpet, ceramics, jewellery and to give us tea in the hope that we would be persuaded to part with some cash, one guy even offered " I am happy to take your money to sell you stuff you don't need". Very honest. We were slow to learn, that in Istanbul, everyone wanting to help you is actually trying to sell you something and we got caught again, this time buying the world's biggest box of baklava and Locum- Turkish delight for about twice the price we could have bought it closer to our accomodation rather than in touristy Sultanhamet. It was a cold and drizzly morning and Cath finally found Salep, a warm milk drink mixed with orchids and cinnamon which complimented the baklava beautifully and warmed us before our tour around Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia, a church, a mosque and now a museum is an awe inspiring monument and a credit to the ideals of a secular Turkey. Again we were reminded of the ingenuity and commitment of people a couple of thousand years ago; they could seriously build. We had read that it is an awesome experience to hear the call to prayer at a point between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia as the Muezzin call to each other and it was like a sing off. Whilst we understood none of it, obviously, it was quite an experience to hear. The Grand Bazaar was an interesting building but again we found it to be a bit like all the others, the history is amazing and the building impressive but it's generally as the young guy said full of stuff you don't need and stuff you need less when your life is in a suitcase and backpack.
We found our rituals in Istanbul and a couple of beers before a trip to the kebab shop was becoming a nightly one. Feeling a little adventurous we headed down some of the less lit streets off Istikal Cd. and found a great little rooftop bar with a magnificent view of the city including the Galata tower, all dressed in red lights, the multiple mosques dominated by the Blue Mosque in her pretty golden glow and the lights of craft moving up and down the Bosphorus.
Things got a little tricky with our accomodation on Wednesday and Thursday of our week in Istanbul as there appeared to be a gas problem, no heating and no hot water. Luckily there was a reverse cycle air conditioner to provide warmth but the hot water, not so easily solved. Initially Cath was happy to report this to the staff at the apartments and wait for the problem to be fixed but when it was the same on Thursday morning, the cranky bear got up and about, only management would be able to deal with this one. So the morning was spent dealing with getting hot water back, which appeared to a waste of a day, as the same thing occurred again on Friday and a change of apartments was in order. A pity as we had planned a Bosphorus boat trip up to the Black Sea. Two days in a row foiled by the very poor management of the apartment.
We have found durum kebab to be a great cheap way of eating lunch, they are a huge roll with kebab chicken, salad and a spice mix, price? 2TL, the equivalent of $0.60AUD, it's almost criminal to pay so little for such good food. We discovered Ian's favourite street so far, musical instrument shop after shop, some very beautiful pieces located in cobblestoned streets with pretty heritage buildings in pastel colours. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular, the city spreads across the many hills of Istanbul, a rainbow of pastel coloured buildings interspersed with minarets. The call to prayer echoes up the the valley and across the water from all directions creating a cacophony of wailing, atonal to Ian's ear but quite haunting just the same.
Another night in the pub, why not? They are there to be used, this time the scene of the crime was the U2 Irish pub, it appears that both Turkish people and tourists are quite keen on Guinness. A great night of conversation with the Cretian barman, a German guy on business and a couple of Istanbulites, as well as guitar playing by Ian and a bit of silliness as the beer and Raki flowed. After the pub our habit is to call in and see the guys at Yasam Lokantasi on our way home, they now know our order and as we enter it is "spicy" for Ian and "durum" for Cath. It is a pretty basic small eatery but serves the best spicy meat and veg dish that Ian loves and chicken kebab for Cath, again the price is crazy, 12 TL and we can use the excuse that we are getting our meat and veg for the day.
Friday night in Istanbul, we were feeling a bit tired of the hustle and bustle of Istiklal Cd so wandered around the streets close to Taksim Square looking for a restaurant for dinner, it was time for a change and we found the perfect spot, an Italian restaurant and wine bar, finally a decent glass of red. It was a while in the making and so having found a nice bottle for a reasonable price, we had two and a very nice meal. The area around Taksim has some very flash hotels and the clientele in the restaurant possible reflected that.
Saturday, our last full day in Istanbul. Cath had decided we were going on that damn cruise come hell or high water, hopefully not really high water. Again the public transport was easy, finding the boat terminal was easy and you wouldn't believe it, the sun came out. We spent an hour and a half cruising up the Bosphorus to Andalou Kavagi, a small fishing village on the Asian side located at the opening of the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. Ian had an encounter with one of the many local dogs, got his bum bitten for his trouble and that made us decide that lunch and beer were in order. Cath was having fish and chips, if she had to catch the fish herself. Thankfully it was already sitting on the grill waiting for her and in not very long we were seated in a small square in the sun, with;Sea Bass, Chips, Salad, Kofte (for the non fish eating Ian), Calamari rings and beers. We had a lovely couple of hours in the village enjoying the sun before the return trip, naturally sitting on the other side of the boat to ensure that we didn't miss either the European or Asian view. The waterside properties and boats are reminiscent of Sydney although with more pastel coloured buildings.
And so our last night in Istanbul has arrived, tonight we will once again brave the chilly evening, walk amongst the throngs of happy, laughing Turkish people and then grab another cheap but wonderful meal, before hitting the sack early. We are flying to Prague tomorrow and Ian can already sense the sausages calling....